The Department of Justice recently announced the unsealing of indictments in the Western District of Pennsylvania against 20 individuals for conspiring to launder money and commit computer fraud. The defendants located throughout 5 European countries allegedly laundered or attempted to launder tens of millions of dollars stolen from victims of cybercrime as members of the QQAAZZ organization. QQAAZZ advertised its services to suspected cybercriminals as “global, complicit bank drops service” in online forums where they were known to gather to offer or seek specialized services. People from 10 states apparently claim to have had money taken from their online bank accounts that was supposedly destined for offshore accounts controlled by QQAAZZ.
Under the money laundering charges, the defendants are accused of opening and maintaining personal and corporate bank accounts around the world. They are accused of using fraudulent identification or creating shell companies with no legitimate business to open the bank accounts that received the money. The money was then allegedly transferred via the bank accounts or converted into crypto currency. QQAAZZ retained a fee of 40-50% and returned the remainder of the funds to their purported cybercriminal clients.
Law enforcement agencies from 15 countries collaborated since 2016 in the ongoing investigation. In addition to searching over 40 homes throughout Latvia, Bulgaria, United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy, authorities seized a bitcoin mining operation in Bulgaria. Through use of a global task force, the FBI, DOJ, Europol, and its enforcement agencies in the European countries united to coordinate searches, arrests, extraditions and to share evidence.
We have seen an increase in these prosecutions in recent years. The DOJ appears to be aggressively targeting individual foreign individuals and accusing them of “cybercrimes” based on allegations similar to the ones against QQAAZZ Companies can also be targets of increased government enforcement actions.
As technology evolves, it introduces new forums for financial transactions and communication which expand the ways law enforcement can target individuals or businesses they suspect of illegal activity. Included are their efforts to boost international cooperation among enforcement agencies and extradite suspects. More transnational, multi-agency international criminal investigations are anticipated.
The government has a heavy burden to prove the defendants engaged in illegal activity, that the money came from an illegal source, and that the money was concealed. To prove a conspiracy, the government must also show beyond a reasonable doubt that the parties made an agreement to violate federal laws, each defendant knew it was unlawful and willingly joined in. Penalties for money laundering can be severe including 20 years in prison, $500,000 in fines, restitution orders to repay financial losses to victims, and as seen here with the bitcoin currency, assets can be seized and criminally forfeited.
If you suspect you are under investigation or are charged with cybercrime, money laundering, computer fraud, or other white-collar offenses, our federal criminal defense attorneys are available to help. Our lawyers have successfully represented numerous clients in criminal money laundering, conspiracy, and computer fraud cases. We have achieved outstanding results in all types of state and federal white-collar criminal cases, including numerous dismissals, “not guilty” verdicts, and probation-only sentences. Contact us immediately if you think you may be the target of an international criminal investigation, or if you need assistance with any extradition proceedings.